Monday, October 17, 2011

Network Interference at its Most Insane

If you think network interference in pilots is a recent thing, think again. My partner, David and I sold a pilot to ABC in 1980. It was centered around the White House press corps. This seemed an interesting area to us – the notion of people working closely together who were close friends but also rivals. We imagined a plethora of stories of reporters roaming the White House corridors, making friends with White House gardeners and maids, trying to out-scoop each other. We could have romantic rivals, eccentric grizzled reporters, eager newbies, etc.

We could also create this world of the administration. WEST WING long before WEST WING.

And we could include political humor, something that was non-existent in sitcoms at the time.

So the show would be edgy, smart, satiric, very contemporary.

That was our pitch and that’s what ABC loved and bought.

We went off to do research. Thanks to a friend who was a White House correspondent, we got temporary press credentials to join the corps.

What we learned was this: the reporters had NO access to the corridors of the White House. They could NOT just roam the hallways. They all had to stay together as one pack in the pressroom. All day long they just sat. They all got the same presidential itineraries, all received the same briefings. If there was a photo op they were all herded as one into the Oval Office, behind ropes, then told to return to their pressroom. Interaction with the President had to be formally requested and granted. You couldn't just happen to be next to him at the urinals.

When the president traveled so did the corps., but as one group. They flew together, were bussed together, and basically did exactly what they did at the White House – sit around and kill time. Wow!!!

This was maybe the least dynamic character comedy premise EVER. But that part wasn’t ABC’s fault; it was ours for pitching this idea without knowing what the hell we were talking about.

Still, we figured we could save it. Create fascinating characters and watch them interact with each other.  Good series are ultimately about relationships anyway.

Originally, we planned to have two young reporters who had a love/hate relationship. We changed that and made the woman the press secretary and the guy a brash new reporter who just got the White House beat.  And they had once had a thing together that ended badly.  Now you had the fun of the reporter needing this person who he had previously dumped. And there was still a little spark for both of them. There was mileage in that. (Here’s how long ago this was: our prototype for the young guy in our pilot was David Letterman.)

So we had interesting characters and we still had the unique arena of national politics.

Here’s where ABC stepped in. We were not allowed to be specific regarding the president. We couldn’t say whether he was a Republican or Democrat. Well, this was sort of a problem. How could we give him a point of view? Sorry. No party affiliation.

We also couldn’t give the president a NAME. Not even a fictitious one. We couldn’t call him President Smith. They thought even a name was too political.

We weren’t allowed to debate issues. So what was anybody going to talk about?  Does anyone know a good barber?

Imagine a lawyer show where no one was allowed to mention the law. It was madness! ABC was concerned our show would be too controversial. President SMITH was too controversial?

Why the fuck did they buy this???

It gets worse.

Our pilot story revolved around one reporter getting to do a one-on-one interview with the president. Which reporter will it be? We decided to go with this story because, well… it’s the ONLY story this premise allowed for.

The last scene was our brash reporter interviewing the president. We artfully avoided issue questions. Note from ABC: We are not allowed to SHOW the president. We can hear him voice over, but actually seeing him is too specific.

But if you ever go to the White House you’ll notice that there photos of the president EVERYWHERE. Same for most government agencies but certainly in the building where he lives. We couldn’t use an identifiable actor’s picture of course, so my solution was a photo of my dad. My father looks very presidential. He has often been mistaken for Sam Wanamaker or Ted Baxter.  Nope. ABC wouldn’t allow it. No pictures, not even of a person no one in America knows.

We dutifully turned in the second draft -- which ultimately was 45 pages of absolutely nothing -- and to our great relief, it was STILL too incendiary. ABC passed. Shucks! Today we’d be able to say we once did a David Letterman failed pilot. Unless they said we couldn’t actually show the reporter, which in retrospect, was highly likely.

But ABC did say they loved working with us and implored us to bring our next idea to them first. Would it surprise you to learn we didn’t?

All of a sudden the notes you pilot writers got today from ABC don't sound too bad, do they?  Good luck to everyone currently in development.

Tomorrow:  A blog experiment.  A new feature.  


Tom Quigley said...

Gee, it's a good thing that something like that doesn't happen in real government, where someone comes up with a good idea, and the other side does everything they can to block it....

Mark B. Spiegel said...


This is a question for Friday and you may not want to answer it but I bet that tons of your readers are wondering the same thing, so what the heck, I'll be the guy who asks:

You come across as a very modest, self-effacing, middle-class (okay, upper middle class) kind of guy, and yet you've been involved at a very high level with several extremely successful TV shows. Are you collecting fat (or thin) royalties from those programs, or is that money ancient history?

Please take the fact that I'm wondering as a complement, as you come across as such a complete and total NON-a-hole!

DJ said...

"Corps." Silent "s."

Johnny Walker said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mac said...

That's crazy. It shows what a stifling and censorious environment it must have been back then.
It doesn't seem that long ago, but culturally I guess it's light years away, when you think of the Clinton gags on The Simpsons, or shows like "That's My Bush!"

James said...

I actually think they may have inadvertently made it funnier.

A President who refuses to acknowledge his political agenda and constantly talks about fishing, bowling, and that tight dress on the chick from channel 7 any time someone wants to debate issues with him.

Comic gold :p

cadavra said...

Ken, you should forward this to Kevin Reilly and his counterparts, so the next time they openly complain about dwindling viewership and/or the poor quality of the programming, it just might inspire them to look in the mirror.

WV--"thidsm": Worship of the very obscure god Thid.

tb said...

Would've been pretty cool had they agreed to pictures of your Pop as the Prez, though, eh?

Johnny Walker said...

Ha, James! I'm sure even that would have been too political as soon as they realized what you were doing :)

Kind of scary just how censorious things were (are?). What where ABC's motivations? Research that showed their audience didn't want political comedy? Or concern that the sponsors didn't want to be associated with political comedy?

I remember Joss Whedon saying that the only time the network got REALLY upset with them was when they created a fictional fast-food chain that showed a working environment that was exactly what you'd expect to find: Bored teenagers, a soulless corporation, and dubious meat products.

Apparently the network was REALLY concerned about upsetting the sponsors.

Loosehead said...

Silent 'p' too.

Loosehead said...

Asking gardeners and maids for gossip sounds like Greg Kettle from Hot Metal. A sitcom based on a scuzzy raincoated "journalist" looking a lot like Columbo only not so clean, appearing at 3rd story windows with a camera only to have a ladder-related accident and next appear covered in bandages like Harry Zimm _after_ the chat with Ray Bones.
It almost writes itself. I give you free license with the idea.

Andy Cook said...

The British sitcom ‘Yes, Minister’ (and, later, ‘Yes, Prime Minister’) followed the ups and downs of an MP (Minister of Parliament) but cleverly never mentioned which political party he belonged to or even the sex of the Prime Minister (this was during the time of Margaret Thatcher so would have identified the PM if ‘she’ or ‘her’ was ever mentioned).

Al said...

What springs to mind for me is this; Once you discovered that the premise you came up with had very little relation to reality, was it ever considered to go forward with it anyway. I ask because there are no forensics labs in the real world that work anything like the forensic labs/batcaves we see on CSI, NCIS, Bones, et. al. Was it not wanting to lose the verisimilitude or just realizing you had written yourself into a corner.

Also, the description of the pilot seems to me to be what eventually morphed into Benson, which seems to be the exact same show with a lead figure played as a buffoon without any political affiliation.

Tim W. said...

One question. Any thoughts on repitching it now? It actually sounds like an entertaining show. And I'm assuming the political censorship wouldn't occur, now. Or maybe just not take it to ABC, again.

Donald said...

I read a story once about a Marlee Matlin pilot that can't possibly be it probably is. I forget the show and it's premise, but supposedly, one of the notes from the network was: Does she have to be deaf?

Kirk said...

I remember a one-shot sitcom that aired on HBO in 1983 or '84 about the White House Press Corps. I think it was called "One More question, Mr President", or something like that. The plot had something to do with a reporter having sex with an apparently unattractive woman (she was never seen) in order to get a scoop. Because it was HBO, the whole thing was racier than the typical network sitcom of that era (though maybe not now.) Does anyone else remember it?

By Ken Levine said...


Well aware of that. There's a story behind that. It's an offshoot of our pilot once we left Lorimar. Two terrific writers were assigned it. Bob Ellison and Tom Whedon.

Kirk said...

Thanks, Ken. I remember it being pretty funny.

DyHrdMET said...

if all you could have done with the "President" was to have a voiceover, had you considered using a woman's voice? imagine the notes you would have received in 1980 for a woman president.

but the restrictions sound like what CHEERS would have been without showing beer or being able to talk to Sam, Coach, and Woody (bartenders).

Johnny Walker said...

I have a couple of Friday questions, neither of which may actually be answerable, but I'll try asking anyway:

I was reading about The Golden Girls earlier today, and I remember its off-shoot (when Bea Arthur decided she'd had enough): The Golden Palace. The same creator of the original show, Susan Harris, helmed the spin-off and apparently the cast just wanted to keep playing the same characters... So why did "they" (whoever they are) alter the characters so much? Rose was made less dumb, Blanche was made less vain, Sophia less biting.

It seems to me that a show works or fails on its character dynamics, so why risk changing the more of the formula than you need to? In a new show with three of the four main characters already loved by an audience, why risk changing them?

The same goes for Joey: Matt Leblanc's character was barely recognizable from his Friends incarnation. I suppose in that case, having a largely 2D character trying to carry dramatic weight would have been very difficult, so they made him more rounded. But still, given how much people loved Joey in Friends, why not try and surround Leblanc with a strong ensemble, so that his character could have remained more intact?

I'm basically just wondering why spin-offs often lead to characters changing so much... When in shows like Cheers and MASH, new characters appearing didn't alter the existing cast THAT much.

Which leads into my second impossible to easily answer question: How do you go about coming up with a new premise for a sitcom?

I've been trying to get something together with a friend of mine, and (of course) you're immediately struck by the endless possibilities. Even when you've come up with a setup which you think will lead to a lot of interesting situations, there's still populating that world with characters.

(I've noticed that a very common setup in British sitcoms is the two male protagonists who are opposites, forced to spend time together... Usually written by two male writers.)

When you and David tried to create new shows, what steps did you go through? I was reading an interview with British producer John Lloyd (of Blackadder and Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy fame), and he said he always approached new projects like this: What wasn't being shown that he'd like to see. Then, what feeling the should the show have.

I'm sure the bit that nobody talks about is the painful, banging your head against the wall, trying to find the right situation and characters until it finally clicks. But did you have any steps that you and David went through?

James said...

But not seeing him, just hearing his voice, worked so well on CHARLIE'S ANGELS. Which was an ABC show.

Maybe if the press corps had been staffed entirely beautiful women and David Doyle was the press secretary? They would solve crimes in-between press conferences. Being reporters were their "cover."

Now that would have sold.

Yeechang Lee said...

Within five years of Ken's 1980 pilot sale to ABC, the network aired a sitcom about a female president (Hail to the Chief, starring Patty Duke), and within seven Fox aired another (Mr. President) with George C. Scott as the chief executive.

Paul Duca said...

Kirk...that program was called "Good Morning, Mr. President" and rain on Showtime. The main plot involved the press corps dealing with a sudden closemouthed display by the President, as a result turning to their inside source...a White House secretary who would share anything--after aggressive coital activity (the male reporters took turns no one man had to endure too much).

Let me know and I can numerous bits of dialogue.

Breadbaker said...

The original point of Yes, Minister was that the politics of the party in power were irrelevant because it was the bureaucrats in charge. As time went on, it sort of flipped and Jim Hacker got to win on occasion (basically, the winner was shown by the inflection of the title line as the last line of the show). The prime minister was definitely male in the first series (and obviously continued when Hacker got the job).

chalmers said...

The one plotline that I remember on George C. Scott’s “Mr. President” was when the first family embarked on a stunt where they spent the night at the home of “regular American folks.”

The event was an awkward flop, but the president and the family dad eventually bonded in the middle of the night when they started chatting about the ’61 Yankees while the president was raiding the family’s fridge.

President George detailed how the team’s power went well beyond Maris and Mantle, and explained how two “catchers,” Elston Howard and Yogi Berra, both had big home run numbers. (Yogi was playing a lot of outfield by then.)

VP81955 said...

On a completely unrelated topic, I note the passing of centenarian radio legend Norman Corwin, whose productions during the 1940s still represent some of the most literate uses of the medium (and who probably ran into more than his share of network interference).

Unknown said...

I'd vote for your dad.

Breadalbane said...

Yup, as Andy Cook pointed out, Yes Minister never mentioned any character's party affiliation, never mentioned the name of the Prime Minister, and never even *showed* the PM (until the sequel series, when the the lead character BECAME the Prime Minster).

It is without question the best political sitcom ever, and quite possibly the best political series ever made. Personally, I'll take it over The West Wing -- albeit just by a smidgen. If you've never seen it, check it out!